1. Martin Truex Jr. His rocket ship ride to the top only took three seasons, but we're willing to bet his time at the top will be even longer. The No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team has reached the pinnacle of the sport in all respects: driver, crew chief and team. Crew chief Cole Pearn is one of the brightest minds in the NASCAR garage and the duo of he and Truex very much reminds us of a young Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus. We look for another season of multiple wins and they will be the team to beat for the championship.
2. Kyle Busch Since winning the 2015 championship, Busch has established himself as one of the elite drivers of the Monster Energy Cup Series. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has average five wins per season, and has finished in the Top 3 of the driver points each of the last three years. In order to hoist the cup at Homestead in November, Busch is one of the guys you have to beat to get there. At just 32-years-old, he's in the prime years of his racing career.
3. Kyle Larson We've nudged Larson past Kevin Harvick over our earlier rankings of January. His four win, 20 Top-10 finish campaign of a season ago was no fluke. It was just the beginnings of his potential. Were it not for a late season run of bad luck, and DNF's he would have been in the running for the championship at Homestead. We believe the addition of the new Chevrolet Camaro and the resolve of this driver's unfinished business will be a powerful combination in 2018.
4. Kevin Harvick Ford's lack of speed last season was glaringly noticeable. Harvick is the point man for that manufacturer. His lack of wins and laps led underscored this horsepower deficiency. However, Harvick is a star and he did nab 23 Top-10 finishes despite the obvious lack of speed. Somehow he and crew chief Rodney Childers will squeeze as much speed and potential as they can out of their cars. For that reason and the fact that he is one of the best drivers in the sport is why he stays among the elite in the driver rankings.
5. Brad Keselowski Keselowski battled some of the same speed and power deficiencies that most Ford driver's experienced last season, but he still managed to win three races and collect 21 Top-10 finishes last year. That set the Penske Racing star above most of the drivers in the Ford camp. Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe communicate well and they will get the most out of their equipment. Once again, we expect the 2012 Cup Series champion to be one of the drivers to beat on superspeedways and larger ovals.
6. Chase Elliott We've moved Elliott up one spot over the January rankings, and we may still be underestimating his potential this season. Despite being winless for his two-season career, the Hendrick Motorsports rising star was one of the more dominant drivers of the Chase last season. He flirted with victory lane on more than one occasion. Now that Elliott has been paired with crew chief Alan Gustafson for two full years, the dividends should start to roll in. With the introduction of the new Chevy Camaro it wouldn't surprise us at all to see him nab multiple wins and drive deep into the Chase.
7. Jimmie Johnson We're still somewhat pessimistic on Johnson's potential this season, but we did nudge him up a bit over the January rankings. The introduction of the Camaro for this Chevrolet team could be a bit of a boost and reason for some optimism. However, make no mistake about it, we believe Johnson and the No. 48 team have shown enough performance erosion over the last two seasons to have some valid concerns going forward. Johnson is no longer the driver to beat for the championship.
8. Denny Hamlin Hamlin can be one of the streakiest drivers in the garage area at times. However, when he gets hot, watch out. Over the last three seasons that streakiness has led to an average of two victories per season and 21 Top-10 finishes. Those are pretty dependable averages for any fantasy racing player to ink into their team roster. That usually slots Hamlin in the 5-to-9 range of the final driver standings and a deep drive into the Chase for the Cup.
9. Joey Logano As Ford suffered last season, so did Logano. The Penske Racing star had averaged over 4.5 wins per season during the 2014 to 2016 window. Last year he had one victory and it was tarnished by a technical rules infraction. That left Logano outside the Chase for the first time in five years. His Top 10 totals dropped from the mid-20s to just 17. Ford's performance issues going forward are still a concern. Logano could be in for another long 2018 season.
10. Ryan Blaney Blaney achieved some tremendous accomplishments in his brief time racing at Wood Brothers Racing. He got the iconic No. 21 Ford back into victory lane, and the young driver enjoyed a lot of success. He makes the jump to Penske Racing's new third team this season, the No. 12 Ford. While that's an equipment and team upgrade, we still have to temper our expectations a bit. Ford was noticeably at a disadvantage last year, and that caps some of the potential this talented driver has behind the wheel.
11. Erik Jones Last year's Rookie of the Year has incredible potential. We've nudged Jones a bit higher than our January rankings, but we have to be somewhat cautious. The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster is still learning the ropes in a Cup car. That said, we expect Jones to take some additional steps this season, but in some instances still look like an unseasoned driver. The homerun and breakout potential of the No. 20 Toyota team with Jones behind the wheel is almost too irresistible for fantasy racing players to ignore.
12. Kurt Busch Last year's Daytona 500 winner hit the pinnacle of the sport in the season-opener, but it was all downhill after that. Much of the 2017 season was a struggle to find consistency for the No. 41 Ford team. Busch endured his lowest Top-10 total (15) and his lowest points finish (14th-place) in the last three seasons. Those were still respectable numbers, and the Daytona 500 win got the veteran driver into the Chase field. However, the performance was clearly down. It's hard to forecast Busch above this slot as we anticipate a carbon copy 2018.
13. William Byron Byron will carry the banner of the 2017 Xfinity Series championship into his rookie season in the Monster Cup Energy Series. That means all eyes will literally be on the No. 24 Chevrolet. The 20-year-old responded well to the pressure of his first full Xfinity Series season last year, and marched to four victories, 22 Top-10 finishes and the series championship. Does Byron have that steely mettle for his first full Cup season? We'll soon find out, but the speed of the new Chevy Camaro combined with this team, and this young racing talent really inspires some huge optimism.
14. Daniel Suarez Suarez finished runner-up in last year's Rookie of the Year chase, but he still had a wildly successful rookie campaign. He was suddenly thrust into the Gibbs' No. 19 Toyota when Carl Edwards unexpectedly retired in January of 2017. Suarez responded well by racking up 12 Top-10 finishes and winding up 20th in the final driver standings. The young Mexican should be ready to take some steps forward this season. We're not sure that Suarez is ready to win just yet, but he should find more consistency and Top 10s in season two.
15. Jamie McMurray Last year was his best statistical season since 2004. It was a tremendous leap in performance. Can McMurray hold onto those gains? That's the big question heading into the new season. His qualifying improved dramatically last year and that helped lead to the improvement. We believe the No. 1 team can hold onto most of those gains, but a slight downturn in performance should be expected.
16. Alex Bowman Bowman could be the x-factor in a lot of fantasy racing leagues this season. The casual fan just doesn't know enough about the new driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet, and that could help players on draft day that are savvy enough to slip Bowman into their late rounds. The 24-year-old driver has 81 starts of Cup Series experience and that sets him apart from many of the other young drivers. He should reach the middle teens in terms of Top 10s and that's twice as good as Earnhardt Jr. did in this same car the last two years.
17. Clint Bowyer We've slid Bowyer down a few spots over his January ranking. It's just difficult to see the No. 14 team improving much over last season with so many young, hungry drivers in the series. The lack of speed Ford has displayed is the other limiting factor. Bowyer won't hurt for motivation. He'll have plenty of that in 2018, but it could be another somewhat disappointing season for his team and for what this veteran driver expects.
18. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Roush Fenway Racing is on the long road to getting back to competitive racing. The last two seasons have been great strides in the right direction, and Stenhouse's talent has led them there. He has become the driver to beat each time we visit Daytona or Talladega, and he parlayed that into two victories last season. Stenhouse's nine Top-10 finishes in 2017 were a career-best mark, and so was his 13th-place standings finish. It's difficult to believe that he'll hold onto most of those gains, but he should still be very competitive. We look for similar performance, although probably not as good as last season.
19. Ryan Newman In this portion of the rankings, is where some fantasy race teams can be made or broken. If people discount Newman in the growing ever-younger NASCAR world, they'll be writing off a good driver with good potential. The Richard Childress Racing veteran notched a victory and 13 Top-10 finishes last year. The win was the exception, but the 13 Top 10s slots in nicely with his three-year average. We should see similar, and possibly even better numbers from the No. 31 team this season. We expect the new Camaro to be a real boost to this team.
20. Aric Almirola In terms of high side potential, this team situation could hold a lot in 2018. Almirola moves from Richard Petty Motorsports to Stewart Haas Racing this season. He takes over the long-maligned No. 10 Ford that used to belong to Danica Patrick. Almirola has been doing the most with the least at RPM for years, and now he'll be in the best team/resource situation of his Cup Series career. Sure, the Fords are slower right now, but Almirola is super-excited and motivated to be here. We can underscore enough the bounce it will give this team.
21. Austin Dillon 2017 was a bit of a mixed up season for the No. 3 team. On the high side Dillon grabbed his first-career win at Charlotte, but on the downside he struggled to find any consistency or Top-10 finishes. His average start position ballooned five spots over the previous year, and his average finish popped around 2.5 spots higher than 2016. It led to just four Top-10 finishes during the campaign and fell way short of expectations. Dillon will try to climb back out of this hole this season, and the new Camaro should help. However, we have to be a bit reserved in our expectations.
22. Darrell Bubba Wallace Jr. With many new faces in new places this year, probably the most intriguing is Wallace at the No. 43 Ford team. He takes over the Richard Petty Motorsports ride that Aric Almirola departed. Wallace did great relief driver work in this same car last season for a short stint while Almirola had a back injury. That audition was good enough to get Wallace the job when Almirola left. We don't see earth-shattering potential here, but the talented youngster should pilot the team's car to many Top-15 and Top-20 finishes this year.
23. A.J. Allmendinger We're predicting a bit of a rebound for the Dinger this season. Last year was an expansion year at JTG Daugherty Racing as the team expanded to two cars. We believe it hurt Allmendinger's performance a bit. With that now behind them, and the new team well-established, we believe we'll see a focused veteran driver. As usual, Allmendinger is an ace and ringer on the road circuits, so watch out for the No. 47 Chevrolet at Sonoma and Watkins Glen. Otherwise he should claw his way back into the seven-to-nine Top 10 range this season.
24. Paul Menard This past season's musical chairs of free agency landed Menard at Wood Brothers Racing. He takes over the iconic No. 21 Ford that Ryan Blaney has piloted the last several years. Menard brings his family sponsor Menards to the table to foot the bill and give the team the potential to race competitively the full season. While we don't expect this veteran driver to post numbers similar to Blaney, he should get a bit of a bounce over what he achieved the last two seasons at Richard Childress Racing.
25. Trevor Bayne Roush's recent renaissance has helped Bayne to better achievements. Last year's six Top-10 finishes and 19.5 average finish were both career-best marks. It led to a 22nd-place finish in the final driver standings. Bayne will look to continue building in 2018. Like his teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr., the performance has been best on the superspeedway ovals. Two of his Top-10 finishes came at Daytona and Talladega. The short tracks were also a bright spot with some Top 10s and many Top 15s. However, his team's potential tops out in the mid 20s of the rankings.
26. Chris Buescher Buescher's drop off in performance was largely because of his move to a brand new race team. JTG Daugherty experience the growth pains of going from one to two cars last year. Last season's four Top 10s and 25th-place finish in the standings should be seen as the floor level for this year. It's debatable how much better Buescher will be, but we believe he and the No. 37 team will take some steps. He should claw out another couple Top 10s this season and improve his average qualifying position over last season.
27. Kasey Kahne Kahne's free agent fortunes have brought him to Leavine Family Racing in 2018. The small team is on the way up in the NASCAR ranks, but make no mistake about it, this is a sizeable downgrade from his former No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports squad. The veteran driver's level of performance has eroded over the past three seasons. Despite winning a surprise race at Indy last year, Kahne posted a career worst six Top-10 finishes and bloated 19.4 average finish. Those marks will seem like lofty goals considering Michael McDowell raced to just three Top-10 finishes with this team combined over the last two seasons.
28. Ty Dillon Season number one in the Cup Series was an interesting affair for the younger Dillon brother. He was generally running at the end of races and only had three DNF's for last season. Dillon also nabbed eight Top-15 finishes during the campaign. It led to a standings finish of 24th-place. That wasn't half bad all things considered, but Dillon never cracked the Top 10 once in 2017. Hopefully that will change this season, but the jury is still out. Germain Racing has the support of RCR, but they're still a limited one-car operation.
29. Michael McDowell McDowell's good work at growing Leavine Family Racing ended at the conclusion of 2017. He did some really good things bringing that part-time team into the realization of full-time Cup Series racing. Now he moves on to Front Row Motorsports for this season. McDowell has averaged 1.5 Top-10 finishes per season and an average finish in the low to mid 20s over the last two years. We can't really see that changing much this season. The team has marginally better resources than his last ride, so we know what to expect from McDowell.
30. David Ragan Ragan will be back for another season of racing at Front Row Motorsports. He'll be teammates with Michael McDowell, and head up the assault for this two-team stable. Ragan posted three Top-10 finishes last year, and as expected, they came on the superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega. This 12-year veteran has superb superspeedway racing skills, so that's something to remember in weekly lineup leagues. Aside from those highlights, it's a probably going to be another season of struggles on intermediate ovals, and weeks of decent racing on short tracks.
31. Matt DiBenedetto He racked up two Top-10 finishes last season and wound up 32nd in the driver standings at the end of last season. Now is the time for DiBenedetto to take some steps forward. Go FAS Racing has given him a vote of confidence and brought him back for the 2018 season. We believe in this driver's skill behind the wheel, but it will be somewhat tempered by the limitations of this team. Improving performance on intermediate ovals would go a long way towards boosting overall performance.
32. Matt Kenseth We've slid down Kenseth a few more spots over our January rankings. As of early February he's still not signed with a race team, and the prospects of racing in this season are growing dimmer by the moment. Kenseth walked away from the sport on his terms, and will return also on his terms. That might end up being the factor in no ride not only this year, but the next as well. It could be that his big victory in last November's Phoenix race may very well have been his last-career Cup Series win.
33. Corey Lajoie Lajoie got a bit of a boost when he signed with TriStar Motorsports in early February. He'll handle the majority of the driving duties for the No. 72 Chevrolet. Lajoie will share this ride with Cole Whitt, but he'll get most of the starts. This is a bit of a team upgrade over Lajoie's situation floating at BK Racing last year. The young driver posted five DNF's and a 30.2 average finish in 2017. He should be improved racing at TriStar.
34. Ray Black Jr. Black will run for Rookie of the Year in 2018, but he faces an uphill battle with William Byron and Darrell Wallace Jr. ahead of him on that list. The Rick Ware Racing team has put him in the No. 51 car for this season and they have secured a charter, so that's a big part of the deal. Justin Marks will drive the team's car in the Daytona 500, but it's all up to Black after that. Guaranteed starts are the bright side, but this team's lack of equipment and support is the downside.
35. Reed Sorenson The 13-season veteran will likely return this season. Although his contract status has not been announced at the time of this writing, we would suspect he'll be back with the Premium Motorsports in the No. 7 team. Danica Patrick will be in the ride for just the Daytona 500, but it's likely that it completely belongs to Sorenson from that point on. Consistency and equipment were the biggest concerns at Premium Motorsports last season, and will continue to be going forward.
36. Jeffrey Earnhardt Earnhardt has been tapped to drive in the Daytona 500 for StarCom Racing in the No. 00 Chevrolet. This is Derrike Cope's ride. The team acquired the charter from the closed No. 27 Richard Childress Racing team, so they're guaranteed to start all events in 2018. However, it's not clear that Earnhardt will be in the driver's seat for all or even most of those events. Even Cope himself could get a few starts. It's an unclear situation that at best is in flux.
37. Cole Whitt As of early February it's been announced that Whitt has requested a reduced schedule this season. That means he'll be sharing driving duties in the TriStar Motorsports No. 72 Chevrolet. Corey Lajoie will get the majority of the starts in this machine, with Whitt starting only some select events. The reduced schedule lowers Whitt's ranking and consequently his fantasy racing value. It's unclear at this point if Whitt is focusing on things outside of racing, or just needs some time away from the track.
38. Landon Cassill Cassill will not return to Front Row Motorsports in 2018, and at the time of this writing he's still a free agent and in limbo as far as a team. The 28-year-old driver possesses some valuable skills and experience with over 250-career starts in the Cup Series. Cassill only managed three Top-20 finishes last season, and no Top 10s. That's likely the reason why he and FRM parted ways. Still, he presents good value and experience for a small single-car race team. There are a handful of race teams that are organizing for a full-time run this season, and Cassill will most likely land a driving gig for one of them.
39. Gray Gaulding Gaulding raced most of the season and made 27 starts last season. He split the time between Premium Motorsports and BK Racing. In those efforts Gaulding nabbed one Top-10 and four Top-25 finishes. At the time of this writing Gaulding hasn't been named to any of the available rides, but he should land one of the open seats. We wouldn't rule out the possibility of him splitting time between rides once again in 2018. At just 20-years-old the young driver still has a lot to learn and room to grow. However, Gaulding's 29 starts of experience at NASCAR's top level makes him a valuable commodity to any team in search of a driver.
40. Justin Marks The 36-year-old journeyman driver will make a few starts in 2018. He's signed with Rick Ware Racing to pilot the No. 51 machine in the Daytona 500, and Marks has hinted that he'll be in for a handful of starts this season. He has over 70 starts of experience between NASCAR's top three touring series, so Marks is no inexperienced driver. However, his limited schedule and limited team make for virtually no fantasy racing value outside of a spot start deep in your lineup in the Daytona 500.